Fathom Mag
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A Grief That Never Leaves

Those who mourn are asked to heal too quickly.

Published on:
March 14, 2018
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6 min.
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In the spring of 2003 my best friend died. Andy had been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, and in the ensuing months I watched as his body wasted away. One warm spring day I stood on the street outside his house while the door closed on our final goodbye. He died two weeks later.

Andy suffered horribly, but now his pain had ceased. My faith told me that his soul was at rest, and yet rage, pain, and sadness that I could not have imagined threatened to tear me apart. My anger only grew as the days and weeks passed. The crack that had split my soul in two grew into a chasm. 

The faith of my youth lay in ruin around me. My conception of a benign God was irrevocably shattered. In its place was a demanding God, who cared little for the pain his “will” wrought on earth. A God I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of.

Adrift

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.
C.S. Lewis

About an hour from my home, there is a cross in the woods on a bluff that looks out over the rolling hills of middle Tennessee. I would regularly make the trip to sit beside it and rest, to be at peace. I visited again shortly after I returned home from Andy’s funeral, but as I sat there, I realized that it had been robbed of its peace. Even this place could not overcome my anger.

I was adrift—my life had been loosed from its moorings. Behind me was a world that had felt safe because of my naiveté. In front of me lay a harsher, sharper, and much more uncertain reality, each moment overlaid with doubt and the specter of the loss of my friend.

Creation was not supposed to work this way.

Death is a terrible paradox. For Christians, it is the moment when our souls leave this world and enter into God’s presence. It is, in the same instant, the purest and most horrific evidence of our separation from God.

Christians should understand better than anyone that death is a disaster. It is a fundamental reordering of nature in opposition to its intended design. That’s why those who have lost loved ones often feel so unmoored, why it feels so unnatural. Like sailors adrift on a great sea, death rips away our illusion of control and leaves us powerless, with the threat of destruction ever present.

Yet funerals are often treated as celebrations. Those left behind are told their loss is “part of God’s plan” or, worse, that it’s “not all that bad”—the implication being that continued mourning and doubt are signs of weakness and lack of faith.

Responses like these are shallow at best, and guilt-inducing at worst. They leave those who grieve alone at the moment when they most need the stability that a more mature Christian understanding of death and loss could bring. 

Death is an enemy.

When Jesus learned of the death of his friend Lazarus he wept. Though he knew he would raise him from the dead, he also understood the gravity of what death represents, utter separation from God. Christians often attempt to minimize death, but this is not God’s view. Death is an evil so deeply rooted in our world that nothing short of the sacrifice of his son could overcome it.

Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Death is our enemy’s greatest triumph, the closest he has come to victory. Even to God, it is horrific. Death unmakes what God has made. It is, as Wolterstorff describes, a “slicing off of what God declared to be.”

Scripture overflows with lament over death, like that found in Job: “As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return, he will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more.”

Or in the psalms:

My heart is severely pained within me,
And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,
and horror has overwhelmed me.

And yet, for much of modern Western Christianity, our response to devastating loss has a lot more in common with Stoicism than it does with our religious ancestry. We are told that “everything happens for a reason.”

Where does this leave the mother who is told that the death of her child is “God’s will”? The brother who is told not to grieve because his sister is “in a better place”? The young man devastated by the loss of a friend who is reminded that God promised he will “not let your foot slip”? 

Andy’s foot slipped.

Grief is disruptive.

When you meet grief, you learn something not everyone knows: it never leaves. Grief’s ache remains, forever reminding you of what you’ve lost. The beloved who have gone take a part of us with them, leaving those left behind with a profound absence, an emptiness. As the years pass it lingers beneath daily life, ready to surface.

It’s expected when I find Andy in life’s big moments, the anniversary of his death, or returning to a place that we shared. But he’s also there in the small moments, the unexpected moments when a lyric, or the smell of a fresh breeze will thrust me back into sadness.

Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened up again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in years. For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

How do I resurrect this piece of me that died with you?

How do I fill the emptiness that lingers?

What do I do with the love that remains?

In the words of writer Alia Joy Hagenbach, “Grief isn’t linear, it’s disruptive. It erupts and explodes your world at the most inconvenient times. The church retains hope but it’s often weaponized when grief isn’t processed in the time table expected. Our humanity offends us.”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince, grieving the loss of his father, responds to his mother’s assertion that death “tis common, all that lives must die.” “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asks.

“Seems, madam?” Hamlet responds. “Nay it is. I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath…
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

Devastating loss is a tidal shift in a life. There is no returning to the way you used to be, because it fundamentally changes who you are. There is no going “back to normal.” As much as I am a son, a brother, and a father, I am a man who loved and lost a friend named Andy. I will never not be that person. To know me, you have to understand that part of my life. 

We are asked to heal too quickly.

“I wish fellow Christians sat with me in my grief. I wish they told me it was okay to be absolutely devastated that my babies had died,” writes author Lauren Casper. “I wish they hadn’t pushed me toward ‘trust and acceptance’ of God’s will as if one couldn’t both grieve and trust at the same time. I wish I’d grasped earlier on that God might actually be devastated with me.”

What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

As a society, and as a church, we don’t handle loss well. We treat grief as something to overcome and look askance at anyone who continues to mourn after a culturally-identified appropriate amount of time has passed, as if the loss of someone you love is ever not supposed to feel awful.

Our instinct is to offer words of comfort, to minimize the pain, instead of sitting with those who grieve. But grief does not represent something broken within us, it is not a problem to be fixed. Grief is the natural reaction of beings created in the image of God to tragedy we were never meant to experience.

‘No one could see his sorrow and live.’

In the fifteen years since Andy’s death I have settled into an uneasy truce with God. I struggle mightily with the idea that my comforts and happiness may be of little consequence to him. Like Lewis, my conclusion is not “So there’s no God after all,” but, “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Like me, there are many who know the pain of a ragged edge that never dulls, the raw wound that refuses to heal, and the lingering doubt of prayers unanswered. If there is anything about my faith that comforts me it’s not the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” and it certainly does not come from trusting God’s plan for this temporal life. I have seen what his plan involves. 

My comfort does not even come from a generic sense that God suffers with all of humanity. Instead, I find comfort in the deep and eternal belief that he suffers the loss of my friend alongside me—that he knows this grief, that he feels this pain, and that my heart is broken by that which has broken the heart of God.

John Graeber
John Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga, TN. He is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, and has also contributed to Glide Magazine, Nooga.com, and Christ and Pop Culture. You can follow him on Twitter @jbgraeber.

Cover image by Jordan Donaldson.

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